No Local

Sprawling three and a half million square feet, the Packard plant on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard boasted the world’s largest building when it was erected in 1903. The now-abandoned factory was issued a demolition order in May 2011, decades after it ceased churning out America’s leading luxury car, joining over 10,000 buildings scheduled to be razed in a deindustrialized Detroit. Once the US’s  fourth biggest metropolis, the City of Champions — as it was dubbed in the 1930s — has waned to roughly a quarter the population of its finest hour and currently claims the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

Amidst entire neighbourhoods being overtaken by encroaching prairie is a growing circuitry of urban agriculture. D-Town Farms, which has staked claim to land in the heart of Detroit’s largest city park, is one of over 900 community gardens that have established themselves in the city’s vacant lots. Malik Yakini, chair of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, describes D-Town as a “community self-determination project” and a “model organic farm… showing how unused and underutilized land in the city of Detroit can be put to productive use both to create greater access to fresh produce, and also to mobilize people to work on their own behalf.”

It is projects like these that are the subject of Greg Sharzer’s No Local, a theoretical analysis of localism: “the belief that small, ethical alternatives can build quality communities, outcompete big corporations and maybe even transform capitalism.” With this expansive definition Sharzer casts an ambitiously broad net, taking on everything from urban agriculture to “buy local” campaigns, alternative currencies and barter economies, in addition to expressly anti-capitalist worker cooperatives and other models of democratic, self-governing workplaces.

While Sharzer grants that localist projects often have important benefits for those involved and can be valuable sites for “alternative learning, creating new relationships and bringing new people into the struggle,” No Local sets out to provide what, in Sharzer’s view, these variant projects together lack: “a critical understanding of the internal drives of capitalism and how they limit the potential for small-scale alternatives.”

Sharzer argues that local alternatives may indeed survive and flourish to the extent that they fill market niches, but they remain nonetheless bound to the rules of an economic system that must expand and centralize at any cost. Consequently, their capacity to expand and displace their predatory capitalist counterparts is predetermined by their willingness (or lack thereof) to resort to the capitalist imperative to externalize costs and outcompete their rivals by more efficiently exploiting labour and the environment.

Put differently, the sum of our individual choices, purchases, and micro-alternatives cannot prefigure social transformation, which must instead come through broad-based movements that confront and disrupt, rather than attempt to escape, the social relations and value structure of capitalism.

While Sharzer’s at times derisive tone might be misread as disdain for rose-coloured naiveté, he makes clear that localism is in fact inspired by the opposite: a deep pessimism that naturalizes capitalist exploitation and concedes its permanence. Commodity activism in the form of buy-local campaigns or support for “ethical” products and small businesses takes this defeatism even further, reducing political engagement to our consumer choices within the market.

Sharzer observes that for many despairing localists, unable to envisage large-scale, collective social change, immense catastrophe (read: peak oil and/or “environmental armageddon”) seems the most likely exit from a train gone off the rails. Rather than directly confronting capital, localists bunker down, carving out tiny “pockets of equitable cooperation” while allowing capital to impose market discipline unfettered. No Local implores us to aim higher.

Sharzer attempts to demonstrate that because localism avoids capital rather than opposing it, it is not only inadequate but also dangerous. By substituting individual consumer habits and lifestyle choices for political action and broad-based social movements, localism allows the structures of inequality and oppression to remain intact, accommodating and in some cases even facilitating neoliberalism. Furthermore, it blames individuals and their failure to exercise adequate restraint or discernment for the system’s failings.

Drawing on Marxist theory, Sharzer locates the origins of localism in “petite bourgeois ideology,” rooted in  particular class interests and informed by a desire to avoid conflict and advance an “individual strategy to get ahead.” Quoting French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Sharzer argues that the petite bourgeoisie assumes a vanguard role in “struggles over everything concerned with the art of living,” appointing themselves as models of good behavior and proper lifestyles, and believing that “the sum of their voluntary choices creates social change.”

It’s here that Sharzer’s blanket critique of “pro- and anti-market localists,” including everything from 100-mile dieters to self-organized communities meeting the needs for survival denied to them by the state, feels particularly tenuous. D-Town Farms may not be much of a thorn in the side of Cargill, but is a community garden in a designated food desert where the lack of fresh produce directly contributes to disproportionately high rates of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension really “petite bourgeois?” Besides, does the working class of Detroit have to wait for the revolution to get lettuce?

There seems to be an unspoken assumption in No Local that everything can be categorized as directly challenging capital, and therefore worthwhile, or not directly challenging capital, and therefore unworthy of a place on the radical left. While lifestyle purity projects seeking personal absolution are indeed ineffectual at best (to quote a recent internet meme, “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”), can projects like D-Town Farms not exist alongside and as a complement to the campaigns for food regulation and price controls that Sharzer advocates, as sites for deepening collective analysis and equipping communities to mobilize against structural oppression?

Survival aside, the reasons why someone might be drawn to one localist project or another, and why localism more broadly has thrived in recent years, seems to defy a single explanation. As Sharzer himself writes, “the decline of working class movements has created an ideological space for localism.” Absent visible, accessible, and effective social movements capable of actually mattering in peoples’ lives, the success of a localist ideology offering concrete, if in some cases misdirected, ways of taking action is not altogether surprising. Do we not bear some responsibility for the left’s dismal failure to offer examples of meaningful political engagement and mass social movements (Maple Spring notwithstanding)?

To Sharzer’s credit, No Local makes a point of articulating what political alternatives to localism might look like. Beyond a handful of examples limited to Toronto, though, his prescriptions are somewhat nebulous and centre mostly around vague references to “exposing the contradictions of capitalism” (and then what?) and assurances that “if we understand how capitalism works, we can transform it.”

At times No Local reads suspiciously like a doctoral dissertation reconstituted for a vaguely popular readership, with uneven success. While Sharzer seems to undertake a genuine effort to engage the vast numbers of people involved with — or at least sympathetic to — localist projects, those who have arrived at localism as a common entry point into activism and have yet to train their endurance for insufferably stale recitations of 19th century theory, brief albeit painful forays into classical economics, and the requisite shout-out to Rosa Luxembourg, will be forgiven for tapping out somewhere before the sixteenth mention of SNALT (Socially Necessary Abstract Labour Time). Though Sharzer has taken care to ground No Local in specific examples and case studies, the framework of analysis is not eminently relatable, and is unlikely to resonate with the experiences of many involved in the wide-ranging projects encompassed under localism. In this sense No Local has perhaps missed the mark on an important opportunity.

That said, No Local does ask important questions that warrant consideration on the anti-capitalist left. While worker co-ops, collectively-run bookstores or cafes and other alternative spaces undoubtedly provide important sites for strengthening communities and building our bases of power, to what extent do organizers risk exhausting limited energy and resources in sustaining small, self-justifying, and often insular projects? In what ways does this work come at the expense of forming broad-based coalitions with communities we may or may not already be part of, and together building movements capable of effecting lasting and systemic social change?

Still, at a time when the left is so lacking for visible presence and accessible entry points, localist undertakings are important points of connection that can’t be sacrificed until we can offer more promising alternatives. As D-Town’s Malik Yakini explains, “what’s most important always is the people being conscious and mobilized… that’s what really helps to shape reality.”

Valerie Zink is a community organizer based in Regina.